Archive for December 2008

Lish Re-Enters the Classroom

Famed editor and creative writing teacher Gordon Lish is re-entering the classroom. Galley Cat has all the details here.

One of my old teachers, Mark Richard, studied with Lish and he had hilarious stories of those workshops. So I’m sure this new round of classes will be fun and challenging.

An Open Letter from Joshua Henkin

henkinJoshua Henkin, author of Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson is an energetic and determined writer and lover of literary books. A creative writing teacher, he’s gracious with an interview, follow lit blogs and book review pages, and generally works hard to promote his own writing and that of others.

This week brought news of still more layoffs and restructuring as Macmillan separated 4% of their workforce. While the publishing industry labors under some dark clouds, Henkin sent an impassioned email to his friends and fans that provided several good ideas for giving a book this holiday season.

With Henkin’s permission, here is the message in it’s entirety:

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, the book industry is in serious trouble. It was in trouble when economic times were good, and now that times are bad, things have gotten really precarious. Book sales across the industry are down as much as 40 percent, publishing houses are laying off people and cutting imprints, one big publishing house announced that it was no longer reading new manuscripts, and a major chain bookstore is on the brink of bankruptcy. Many of these problems have been a long time coming (the decline of newspapers and especially of book review sections has been a big blow, as has the closing down of many independent bookstores), but in recent months the problem has become especially acute. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but these are alarming times. What’s at stake is the future of books, and of reading culture. Although books will continue to be published (Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling will publish their next books), for everyone except a handful of bestselling authors, the future is far more uncertain. What’s at stake is the wealth and diversity of book culture. Many classics (books we read in our English classes in high school and college, books our children read or will read), simply wouldn’t be published by today’s standards and, if they were published and didn’t sell well immediately, they would be removed from the bookstore shelves. This is why it’s so important that you buy books for the holidays. There’s a website dedicated to this enterprise,, which you might want to check out, and publishing houses are running ad campaigns focused on holiday book-giving. You really can make a difference. A typical paperback novel costs less than fifteen dollars, far cheaper than a necklace or a sweater or dinner at a nice restaurant. I would especially encourage you to buy books from independent bookstores, which are in the most serious trouble and which promote books that go beyond the usual bestsellers and where the employees really know about books. Independent booksellers are the unsung heroes in what are very difficult times. Thanks for reading this, and have a happy and healthy holiday.



Mezrich Tackles Facebook Founders


Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House and Rigged, is publishing a book on the creation of Facebook and the folks who made it happen. Interesting recap here.

How Do You Find Something to Say?


Everytime we struggle to sit down at the desk and write, everytime we find it hard to stare at a blank page, everytime it seems the laundry or mowing the grass is more pressing than writing, just think of those poor sportswriter souls who have to cover the Detroit Lions football team.

As the team continues its march towards historic levels of futility, the local beat writers have to continue to come up with something to say and file their columns. After the Lions fell to 0-14 yesterday, they became only the third team in league history to see such a mark. Detroit Free Press writer Drew Sharp filed this report.

Random Links

It’s been a busy few days for me, but here are some interesting links I’ve stumbled across. Some relate to books, but some don’t.

–Sports writer Mark Kriegel mentions an economic crisis idea from Tim Smith of theDaily News: Make the oil companies bail out the auto industry. Exxon Mobil announced profits of $14.83 billion for the third quarter of this year, a record for an American company. The quarter before that, Exxon profitted to the tune of $11.68 billion. That’s $26.43 billion in six months. The Big Three automakers originally said they needed $25 billion and then came back and said they need about thirty-five or so. Shit, if we put Exxon Mobil on the case, they can clean that auto industry mess up before summertime.

–Ross Siler and Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake Tribune figured out that the average professional basketball player in the NBA earns $3,487 per minute.

–We can probably count the writers who approach such income on one hand. So for everyone else, Ed has some heartfelt words of advice and encouragement for you to stay writing, in spite of difficult times.

–A few different folks are discussing, some of them tongue-in-cheek, resurrecting the Federal Writers Project or bail out plans for writers.

–Jol Dantzig’s blog at Hamer Guitars has a wonderful post about making every project count. Whether you make guitars, write stories, take photos, or compile TPS reports, “approach each task as if it were the one that will define you,” Dantzig advises.

More on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Meltdown

Galley Cat has featured frequent updates and additional information on the virtual collapse of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt during the week. Today, the Cat provides insight from a senior staffer who was among the 200 people laid off this week.

“The adult trade division has been crippled to the extent that books in production cannot be attended to and are now ‘frozen,’ something that I’ve never heard of before (and this is my third layoff in a twenty-year publishing career),” writes the insider. “Many here are surmising that the adult trade division is rapidly being dismantled and discarded. Among those laid off were a 79-year-old acquisitions editor who had signed [four] Nobel Prize-winning authors in her career [Drenka Willen] and a senior designer with over thirty years of stellar service. We who worked at HMH are heartsick at the gutting of these two prestigious and respected companies, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt.”

Galley Cat goes to to relate that those employees still collecting a paycheck are basically hand-cuffed from actually being able to do any good work. One respected editor, Galley Cat points out, is still at HMH, but “through no fault of her own been forced into a position where her ability to build upon the strong portfolio of books and authors she’s cultivated over the years has been severely crippled.”

Besides my general sadness at the state of this once great company and all the people affected, I have one question: were things at HMH really hanging by that slender of a thread? Or, is this some ploy by corporate overlords to cast off the divisions and simply write off a loss?

Admittedly, my business acumen is fairly lacking. I’ve been so immersed in getting my Beanie Baby empire set up on this great new website called eBay that I’m a little out of the loop. So I’m not going to try and pretend to be all Wall Street Journal about this.

But although the majority of the publishing industry is shaken right now, and other companies have certainly laid off staff recently, why do none of them have the feel of total collapse that permeates the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt situation? And why were the braniac brass at HMH the only ones idiotic enough to actually announce they were freezing acquisitions? Surely other publishers are being more judicious in their selections, but they’re not actually going out in public proclaiming that the mail slot is closed.

All in all, it’s just a sad situation. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we can get through today without more bad news.

Discipline and Hunger

A couple of interesting links today, because I simply can’t bring myself to regurgitate any more details about the bloodletting that occurred in the publishing industry yesterday.

First, JA Konrath comes through with a good post on discipline. Konrath always provides concrete, useful advice and this post is no different. “If you choose to write (or if writing chose you) then you have to be relentless in the pursuit of your goals,” Konrath writes. “If you settle for less, your expectations will be met. Demand more from yourself.”

Second, agent Nathan Bransford mentions that some people are bemoaning their financial difficulties in a query letter. Wow. I know times are tough, but if you’re looking for publishing to keep you from a Dickensian poor house, then you’re looking in the wrong place. “There is no such thing as getting rich quick in publishing,” Bransford explains. “It takes forever!”

A Year of Doing What You’re Supposed to Do

I enjoy these books where someone “does something.” Even when they do it for a specified period of time, which occasionally makes it seem more like just a way to get a book deal as opposed to actually exploring something important in their life. I like the work of AJ Jacobs, I enjoyed Pete Jordan’s book about dishwashing across America, and so forth. I understand the allure of the genre.

But sometimes, these books make no sense to me.

On Monday, Publishers Weekly reported that Algonquin has acquired Hodding Carter’s new book, A Year of Living Within Our Means. “After 10 years of profligate spending fueled by real estate flips, refinancing and credit card debt, the author will write about living on what he actually earns,” the report states. “In order to do so, he and his family of six will mine cost-saving techniques from the Great Depression and the first cookbook in America, and stay within their budget, whether that means growing their own food or bartering for things they need.”

So let’s get this straight… you’re writing a book about something millions of people do every single freaking day? And getting paid for getting your life in order?

Admittedly, many people in this country are not responsible financially and they abuse credit and get in over their heads. That’s not the case for me because I’m able to spend my afternoons swimming in the sea of gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck, that I have stored up in the Slushpile vault. But for many people, handling their cash flow is a problem. And given our nation’s poor economic conditions, life is only going to get harder for many people regardless of their financial habits.

But many others do manage to stay within their means. Using credit responsibly, delaying big purchases, not even bothering to keep up with the Joneses, those are a course of daily life for millions of people. So what’s the big deal here?

Maybe Carter’s book will reveal some truly innovative techniques, beyond simply saving crumpled balls of used aluminum foil in a drawer like grandma used to do. So maybe when the book comes out, we’ll all learn a thing or two. But at this point, this is exactly the kind of deal that makes me say, “Huh?”

Maybe I’ll write a book about going a year without smoking cigarettes. Or, I’ll write a book of A Year of Not Drunk Driving. Or, I’ll mine old school texts about following the law and then write 12 Months of Not Getting Arrested.

Best Book Designs of 2008

The Book Design Review selected the best book covers from 2008. Check out the covers and see which ones you liked best.

I believe my favorites from this list are Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me and Company of Liars.

Publish Your Rejection Letters

Literary Rejections on Display posted this request for submissions from Bill Shapiro.

Last year, Shapiro published Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See and now he’s working on a book about our favorite thing: rejection letters.

As LROD points out, Shapiro’s work in progress will be published by Random House, so you stand a chance to appear in something put out by the biggies.